The Complete Guide to Cloud Storage

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.”

– From The Daffodils by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), famous English Romantic poet.

What is Cloud Storage?

There was once a time when an online search for the term “cloud” would inevitably return results of the above kind, speaking about those puffy progenitors of precipitation. However, nowadays, there’s a good chance that such a search query would yield results related to “cloud computing.” And cloud storage is an integral part of cloud computing.

For those who don’t know what cloud storage is about, it has nothing to do with storing data in the skies. Rather, the “cloud” in “cloud storage” refers to the ubiquity of the data and how it is perceived by the end-user. Thus, although the data is stored in multiple servers at multiple locations, the user does not view it as being at a physical location but a virtual “cloud.”

More often than not, these servers are run by third parties, greatly reducing infrastructure costs.  These cloud computing companies then sell or rent out this storage space to interested parties who do not wish to invest in multiple physical servers to store their data.  The storage space may then be used to hold and access data as the customers see fit to, at a mere fraction of the cost of a physical, or several physical servers. The stored data can then be accessed through the internet, either by using a web-based interface or an application programming interface, or API for short.

Cloud storage is usually offered as a utility service, the same way as electricity. In other words, you only pay for what you use. The parallel with an electricity connection doesn’t end there. The same way that a consumer doesn’t have to pay for the infrastructure to generate and transmit electricity but only for the units consumed, a cloud storage customer is not concerned with storage and transmission of data – all that are taken care of by the service provider. While a consumer can connect to the electricity grid to get connected, the cloud storage customer logs on via the Internet for access.

From big enterprises to SMBs (small & mid-size businesses) to individual home users, everyone can benefit from cloud storage. While some advantages favor one user category more than the other, it is obvious that the net effect of shifting to the cloud is always positive, irrespective of the size of the consumer.

Advantages of cloud storage vis-à-vis traditional storage on servers

•    Cost savings

This is one of the primary advantages of going on the cloud. Not only do you save on the capital expenditure of buying storage equipment, your operational expenses also reduce due to the fact that you don’t pay for unused resources.

Now, servers also occupy a lot of space. In other words, a company has to pay rent for their storage media. Also, they require regular maintenance, necessitating the presence of full-time staff that has to be paid salaries and benefits. Finally, servers consume a lot of energy, and not only for normal operations. Servers get heated up pretty quickly and need to be cooled down, again something that requires energy. Consider all these costs, and the net cost savings of moving to the cloud add up to a substantial amount.

•    Mobility

With cloud storage, you have access to your data from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Therefore, wherever you go, your data travels with you – but without the weight of baggage. This ability to access data from remote and multiple locations also allows for easier sharing of information. In an increasingly connected and mobile world, these are great advantages to have.

•    Disaster recovery

Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” – and storage systems are not immune. However, cloud storage is much more resilient to outages than traditional storage due to their distributed nature. Thus, even if one server location goes off the grid, the others ensure that your data is not lost. Whether the disaster is natural like an earthquake or man-made like a disgruntled employee pulling off wires, data recovery is a breeze with cloud storage.

•    Scalability

The ability to scale up, and equally importantly, scale down storage infrastructure at short notice is one of the major advantages of cloud storage. For example, if you use traditional storage media and your storage requirements double overnight, you would be faced with the difficult prospect of going out and buying servers in a hurry, most probably paying extra for the rush. But with cloud storage, you can purchase additional storage at the click of a mouse.

Similarly, if your storage requirements decrease, you can either carry unused server inventory or sell them off at a loss. But with cloud storage, you simply reduce the storage you are subscribed to. Therefore, not only are your storage requirements satisfied at short notice, they are satisfied at lower cost.

•    Load balancing

For traditional storage, heavy traffic can cause a bottleneck. For example, if several employees try to access company data from the same server, the speed of access will be considerably slowed down. This is because the data that can be read from the server and the data that can be transmitted over the optic fiber both have maximum limits.

However, with cloud storage, multiple servers at multiple locations ensure bottlenecks are few. Also, traffic can be dynamically rerouted to ensure high speed of access for all users. This is called load balancing and is a prime advantage of cloud storage. Therefore, cloud storage allows for optimum use of resources by consolidating and reallocating them based on utilization and capacity. In contrast, traditional IT paradigms are inflexible and cannot respond to changing demands, thereby creating inefficiencies.

•    Ease of use

Cloud storage services trump traditional storage as far as ease of use is concerned. For one, it can be completely automated. Thus, you don’t have to concern yourself with manually backing up your data, or syncing it to multiple devices. Secondly, data is stored in an organized manner that precludes long searches. Most offer inventoried list of contents, making it easier to find what you want, when you want it.

•    Security

With cloud storage, all security processes are the responsibility of the service provider. While some would find this undesirable, it’s actually a great advantage for smaller customers who cannot afford enterprise-level security that a service provider can provide. For example, most cloud storage providers employ complex encryption codes that make hacking your files nearly impossible.

In addition to information security, physical security is ensured through heavily-guarded server farms. These include state-of-the-art motion sensors and 24/7 secured access, camera surveillance and security breach alarms. To protect against natural disasters, these locations have 24/7 backup systems, elevated floors, HVAC temperature control systems with separate cooling zones and seismically braced racks.

As is obvious, all these cost money and beyond the budgets of many customers. Thus contrary to popular perception, outsourcing data security can be desirable for many. As an analogy, consider the following: Does the President of the US carry a gun or entrust his security to the highly-trained Secret Service personnel?

Concerns with cloud storage

As with any technology, cloud storage is not without its flaws.

•    For one, it is a comparatively new technology. Consequently, there is a marked lack of standards making contracts and key success measures difficult to define. Also, this affects portability. In other words, there are several migration issues that need to be overcome in order to move your data from one provider to another.

•    Secondly, since data is accessed through the Internet, a reliable and secure Internet connection is critical to use cloud storage services.

•    Finally, there is the privacy and security angle. Since data is under the guardianship of the service provider, there can be certain concerns about data privacy. Also, confidential data may be inadvertently shared while in storage or in transit. However, this is true for traditional storage as well.

It is clear that the advantages far outweigh the potential dangers of using cloud storage services. What’s more, these risks can be most easily mitigated by ensuring that there is a stable and reliable Internet connection and by choosing a reputable cloud storage hosting company.

Therefore, the next question you need to ask is “How do I choose a cloud storage provider?” Here are a few suggestions:

How to choose a cloud storage provider

•    Define your requirements

Like many technologies, cloud storage works better if you go by the “horses for courses” adage. In other words, the provider should optimally meet your requirements. And for that to happen, you need to clearly define those requirements. Some things you need to consider are whether the storage is for personal or business use, how much space you require, whether you want a feature-rich interface and extensive customer support (which will obviously cost more), etc.

A feature-rich service may include the following:

  •  Ability to schedule backups
  •  Ability to perform incremental backups
  • Ability to auto sync across different devices
  • Ability to selectively sync files and folders
  • Ability to securely share documents and collaborate
  • Compatibility with both Macs and PCs
  • Compatibility with smartphones and tablets
  • Ability to stream multimedia

A cloud storage provider that allows you to pick and choose the features you want is definitely recommended.

•    Have a transparent selection process

Transparency should be employed both within and outside the company. While intra-company transparency ensures organizational buy-in, transparency with service providers ensures strong relationships all around.

•    Ensure risk sharing contracts

Choose a service provider who is willing to take on some of the risk of implementation. This will ensure that the provider has a stake in the project.

•    Avoid sub-contracting

Select a service provider who has in-house expertise for the entire implementation. This ensures stricter control and integrity of the project.

•    Look at provider work history

This is true for almost any kind of history. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, a record of successes does point to competence.

•    Define measures of progress and success 

It is important that the customer and service provider agree on how to measure progress and success of the implementation. This is especially important considering the lack of industry standards in this field.

•    Consider service provider selection to be a strategic decision

Choosing a cloud storage service provider is a strategic decision that must not be dictated by short-term gains. Therefore, a provider who can provide long-term support and not necessarily short-term cost savings should be chosen.

Cloud storage is the way everyone will store and access data in the future.

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